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There is some irony in the fact that about the only person the French are not allowing into their country right now is Priti Patel. In an unusually blunt diplomatic snub, her day trip to Calais on Sunday has been cancelled – and so have the scheduled face-to-face talks with the French authorities about the loss of life in the English Channel.
One hopes they’ll still pick up the phone for her but you never know. Given the enormity of what has happened, it seems a bit impetuous – childish, even – banning Patel from her own meeting but it does go to show how dreadful Anglo-French relations have become and how weak the UK is.
Apparently the French didn’t like the tone of Boris Johnson’s letter to the president of the republic, nor that he shoved it out on Twitter. That is not how such things should be done Monsieur Johnson, they were telling him, and they have a point.
It’s maybe not the first time Johnson’s had a bit of trouble with a French letter but the tone was all wrong. Johnson – of all people – was offering his sage advice on how they should be running their backward little country.
They don’t really need that and they don’t really want to enact his helpful suggestion that they let the British patrol their borders for them, seeing as they can’t be bothered.
After all, the job of any country’s border force is to stop people getting in, not so much to prevent them from lawfully leaving. As Macron says, these people do not wish to live in France and he cannot make them.
Rather tellingly, the French explained that the British ideas are unacceptable because they violated the “sovereignty” of France. Whoever is at fault in this, it seems plain that nothing will be done as a result of the tragedy this week and the people who will suffer from this spat are the refugees still attempting a Channel crossing in flimsy boats and worsening weather; more will die.
You have to admit that Brexit has not helped. Like so many divorces where the participants believe that it’s all going to be quite amicable, leaving the EU was always going to be acrimonious – and so it has proved.
Within the EU’s structures, the British and the French had to talk to one another and the other EU partners involved in the migrant crisis – such as Italy, Malta and Greece and now Poland and Lithuania.
We did have the Dublin Regulation system for pan-EU migrant returns, which may not have been perfect but was at least some sort of agreement. Now, there is none.
Where once Britain could exert influence and some power over EU migration policy and what was happening “upstream” in the Mediterranean and policy towards Turkey, the British now have next to no say.
The old concept of shared sovereignty meant that the British would no longer have complete control over their own borders but in return would have a say on the border regime across the whole continent, which was of some use. At the moment, the British have no say over anyone else’s border policies and little practical control of their own.
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The migrant crisis is bigger than Britain and indeed bigger than Britain and France. It is precisely the kind of thing that demands action at a supranational scale. This was what was going to be happening over the weekend, when Patel was going to swap ideas and contacts with counterparts from a half dozen other European countries – just like the old days in an EU Council of Ministers meeting.
Sovereignty was to be pooled. If the UK was still an EU member state, the French would not have been able to “disinvite” the British home secretary – she’d have freedom of movement for a start.
Johnson’s pompous attempt at a billet-doux to President Macron was the immediate cause of French irritation but it is Brexit that has clearly poisoned relations.